07/17/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

Exchange Tourism Initiates a Dialogue on Smart Cities

As a blogger, I enjoy the privilege of talking to aspiring changemakers and listening to them. Lately, a particular group pushing for change include advocates for "smart cities." Within this global movement for "smart cities" are those who believe the who held the First International Summit on Smart Cities of North Africa (ISSC) in Ifrane, Morocco. In a nutshell "Smart cities" represents a vision for improved access to services, technology, better transportation in a sustainable way.

Urbanized Is Not Always Smarter Already by 2030, nine MENA countries will be more than 90 percent urbanized, according to UN-Habitat.
  • Bahrain (95.8 percent)
  • Israel (94.5 percent)
  • Kuwait (98.4 percent)
  • Lebanon (93.9 percent)
  • Libya (92.0 percent)
  • Oman (95.2 percent)
  • Qatar (95.9 percent)
  • Saudi Arabia (92.6 percent)
  • United Arab Emirates (93.3 percent)

Yet, the push towards urbanization often ignores the social and cultural benefits that rural environments still offer -- and at a lower cost with more sustainable ways to operate.

True, urban environments tend to introduce more transportation and education opportunities -- but not always as seen in ghettos and slum dwellings in highly developed countries.

The vision for a more sustainable way of living is not limited to cities. Nor is the "smart cities" vision defined by the fanciest technologies available on the market. Small towns and rural areas offer possibilities in the way of offering cleaner environments and healthier conditions, without the traffic jams and air pollution, which is another motivating force behind "smart cities" planning. However, the push for communities to urbanize and become more interconnected in the 21st century produces new challenges.

Introducing "smarter" initiatives that require advanced technology may widen the existing urban-rural divide if rural communities do not have the opportunity to make the technology relevant to their daily living, commented some of the ISSC panelists. At the same time, smarter living also considers consuming less and making better use of the space. In this case, urban living does not automatically present itself as the model of smarter living. The challenges of rural-urban and digital divides brought to mind how one Ashoka Changemaker, Rabee Zureikat, tackled this in the Jordanian context.

Rabee Zureikat comes from Amman, Jordan and studied marketing. He started volunteering with NGOs because he observed marginalization and poverty. In his observations of rural living, he noticed how the women in the Dead Sea areas reused tomatoes and onions for soil and food for animals. He filmed this alongside the waste in urban restaurants, which often thrown out the same ingredients. He observed other daily practices that contrasted with urban living and noticed a pattern: Not a single thing is wasted in a civilization. Zureikat's TEDx Amman talk sums up his public service announcement, which he uploaded to Youtube to underline the need for respect in bridging the rural-urban divide. One style of living is not wholly, completely better.

Urban-Rural Is Not Always Forward-Backward
While contemplating what it means for a community to be 'modern', 'developed', or 'civilized,' he realized that the driving force for communities to exist, is to thrive, or to not be "backwards." According to Zureikat, people do not want to be labeled as ignorant especially when they do not fall into a traditional schooling path. But what if going back towards some practices offered a better, more sustainable way to live -- regardless of whether the practice is rooted in rural or urban living?

As Zureikat explained, "Civilization is a construct that looks at economic and social development ... it's a construct" so civilization can adjust to economic and social changes. Currently, the urban dimension of civilization heavily relies on consumerism. Therein lies the problem: consumerism has its limits and often, is directly counter-productive to sustainable living.

What is development? Does it mean that a village has more money to consumer more? Should not it be respecting what each community might present with strengths, concluded Zureikat.

What was clear to Zureikat was that urban environments did not clearly provide sustainable ways to thrive, but did offer some measure of improved living. He observed the same regarding rural communities living in the Dead Sea areas. "We exchange to change: I admit that you have something to give me and I have something to give you." In the end, the focus is on respect not about getting rural areas to morph into urban, or vice-versa, but to appreciate what works towards sustainability.

In 2007, Zureikat started the Zikra Initiative after identifying Jordan's poverty pockets. Zikra offers "Exchange Tourism" about five times per month, which means bringing influential people from urbanized Amman to undergo the village experience.

Zikra exchange denotes an equal relationship, and through exchange tourism activities, citizens interact and exchange resources and experiences. The result is bridging social gaps and shattering stereotypes on both sides, thus easing ethnic and social friction and leading to a harmonious peaceful society.

Visitors see how village men build wire cars from recycled parts. So it is no surprise that CNN listed Zikra on "Ten Things To Do" for tourism.

In exchange tourism, visitors pay a fee, which produces two positive results. First, the fee funds the community and their projects. Second, the fee process eliminates the hero/victim or giver/receiver complex that plague many development projects through philanthropic means. In the end, visitors also walk away with more respect for rural and village living. As one participant told Zikra,"They (urban visitors) may be financially rich, but I am rich in what I can produce."

From the other side, or the urban visitor viewpoint, "I discovered that people have abilities, they just need direction."

Like many in the development community, measuring impact -- beyond testimonials -- is key. Ashoka brownbags ask Fellows how they measure impact, in spite of gut reactions to success. Zureikat explained that he goes through Facebook posts and other social media tools to "capture genuine reactions" in real time. He argued that he cannot rely on the scientific method because people try to sound smarter on surveys. Responses are not as genuine. Although Zureikat's belief did not resonate with my program evaluation background, I could see why combing through comments on social media served a kind of purpose in gauging impact.

On the plus side, Zikra Initiative's exchange tourism will benefit from partnering with others to pursue additional programming. Partners who believe in preserving Jordan's cultural legacy will find promise in the Zikra Initiative. Additional programming builds on the exchange tourism model with organizing retreats for companies. Zikra offers school trips and family packages to generate the two-way appreciation earlier -- before stereotypes become ingrained.

Overall, Zureikat has stumbled upon a solution through his Zikra Initiative because it tries to identify the best practices of living in different environments, which could inform "smart city" development of both urban and rural areas. Zikra Initiative is significant because it tackles the overriding fear highlighted in the ISSC debates: "smart city" developments only promote a rural-urban divide if urban planning ignores what rural communities may contribute regarding environmental, agricultural, and energy-use practices.

Hopefully other ministries of tourism across Middle East and North African countries will consider exchange tourism models as the increasing push towards urbanization pigeonholes rural practices as all backwards, when indeed, they are not, as shown by the Zikra Initiative. If both Jordan's Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities and Ministry of Social Development ever had mutual interests, exchange tourism is worth promoting. Exchange tourism initiates that necessary dialogue on how both urban and rural communities envision a "smarter city".